by Richie Cumming
The visual landscape of my wee part of the world has changed fairly significantly over the last few months.
There’s a new spectacle on Leith Walk drawing commuters’ eyes up from their hand-held devices and copies of the Metro on the morning bus up into town. The stretch of the Walk around this latest architectural intervention is now a much brighter place despite the shortening hours of daylight. This aggressive visual interruption is a spanking new LED advertising screen, a ridiculous iPad bolted onto the side of a tenement block.
In the evening its glare makes the pavement, trees and street furniture flicker blue, red and white with varying intensity, like a shite Olafur Eliasson installation with none of his intelligence.
It silently screams ‘Own your home!’, ‘Win the Lottery!’ and other such aspirations, cajoling passers-by to download Lady Gaga’s Art Pop onto the latest mobile device using imagery designed by he art world’s poster boy for rampant capitalism, greed and self-interest, Jeff Koons.
A million miles away but just a wee bit further down the Walk, an image occupies a similar space and is on a comparable scale. It doesn’t move or flicker, demand you have the latest technology or spend money to appreciate it. Tucked away, behind the garages under the railway arches on Gordon Street you’ll find The Leith Aquatic.
The Leith Aquatic may not be to everyone’s taste. Its depiction of a massive head/sun, boat, giant crab, sunken toilet, deep sea mines, birds, sea monster tentacles and gramophone could, like the LED screen, be described as ridiculous. But, and an important but, this imagery was derived from the artists’ discussions with the local community regarding the history of the area, visits to heritage sites and through the everyday realities of the artists living nearby. It grew organically from these discussions and the people who were involved in them, quite rightly, feel ownership over this big daft painting.
Other, slightly smaller, hand-painted images have also cropped up around Leith. LeithLate’s Shutter Project has been turning the fairly battered metal shutters of independent retailers into fairly battered metal shutters with paintings on them, the imagery designed and produced by local artists in conjunction with the retailer. Retaining the shutters usefulness as a protective barrier, raising the businesses’ profile and giving artists a permanent platform for their work, the Shutter Project has proven popular with residents, artists and proprietors and plans are afoot to extend it.
Another recent mural enlarges the faces of actresses from a 1960’s Edinburgh Festival theatre production. Visiting Australian artist Guido Van Helten has transformed what was, for a number of years, a boarded up shop unit into a popular artwork that has received worldwide recognition through the myriad social networking connections of the international graffiti and mural communities.
These painted artworks are a revival of sorts, a nod to the Leith mural project that peaked in the eighties with Tim Chalk’s mural on Great Junction Street.
They are part of a global mural scene fuelled by social media, its origins a combination of traditional socially minded muralism and the growing public acceptance of graffiti techniques as legitimate art forms. The later partly arriving through the co-option of graffiti culture by advertisers as means of selling to youth markets over the last twenty years and partly because the taggers grew up, wanted paid and couldn’t run anymore. Many of the current crop of artists have skipped the illegal tagging stage altogether and have honed their craft on commissioned walls and legal spots.
The existence of both the painted murals and the advertising screen tell us a great deal about the values of our society.
The big shiny nonsense blazing forth from the grotesque display of corporate might and energy consumption that is the screen, doesn’t tell us about anything that really matters. It’s a mass produced object spewing forth mass produced adverts for mass produced products and it is screens like these that are at the forefront of cultural homogenisation the world over. The paintings on the other hand are one- offs and, more often than not, contain genuine emotional investment from the communities in which they are sited.
There was no community event to launch the LED screen as there was no community involvement.
For the launch of The Leith Aquatic, food was provided by the Punjabi Junction social enterprise for everyone who turned up and the artists were fed every day of the week of painting by local restaurants and residents eager to lend their support to the production. The painting tells numerous stories about the area, provoking discussions and cross generational retelling of these tales and has entered into local folklore itself. In my eyes, that is far more important than how many £88 Katy Perry tickets have been sold to the parents of over-sexualised tweenagers.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people would rather have a massive advertising poster of cartoon fighter jets bombing their town than hand-painted murals that celebrate their location.
Maybe my ego and self-interest as someone who wants to paint big pictures of things on walls has warped my view and I’m just jealous of the screen’s prime gable end position.
I recently heard one man on the bus discussing the LED screen with his six year old son. They thought it was ‘amazingly cool’ and, on seeing the advert, were both super-excited about the release of the new Call of Duty – Ghosts console game.
Who am I to criticise a vehicle for creating a cross generational bonding experience over the prospect of shooting South American mercenaries in the face in a post-apocalyptic future? Maybe I should start drawing fighter planes…
Richie Cumming is on Twitter @skintrichie
This article was first published in Post Magazine Issue 2. You can buy or download the magazine here.